Gotta Wear Shades

Could the Back-Biting Really Be Over?

Ronney Reynolds' seat sat conspicuously empty, Eric Mitchell's $1100 Relax-the-Back chair was wheeled off the dais for the last time, and Bruce Todd did not have anyone escorted out by the police. Even if these anomalies did not clue in the casual council observer, the Connect Four permagrins on the remaining progressive councilmembers were enough to give it away: The end was nigh. Time to bid adieu to the days of whine and poses, and welcome the much-anticipated era of brotherly council love.

All the remaining members and their aides seem to be looking forward to the changeover, but none wants to perpetuate the popular notion that the new council will be entirely of one mind. Rather, they draw a sharp contrast between the council of tomorrow and the departing body and they all seem eager to talk about future plans and the philosophical changeover coming around the bend. "One stark difference you're gonna see is there will be a deeper level of discussion and less surface-level demagoguery," predicts Daryl Slusher, and not surprisingly, his colleagues tend to concur. While no one would come right out and say that they expected the new council to be in agreement all of the time, they all hinted at an abundance of 7-0 votes from now on.

Beverly Griffith's aide, John Gilvar, says that it's just that expectation which scares him. "It's been a challenge to get four votes for things and it makes me a little nervous that people think that it might be easy," says Gilvar. "But it does have the potential to be really cool." Gilvar's goofy joy was shared all around, as the era of the last minute dias tug-of-war comes to an end. "There wasn't a lot of point in talking about things ahead of time because there was a foregone conclusion that we're just going to be on opposite sides," says Gilvar. "Now there might be someone that has a proposal and someone who has an objection and then some compromise would be reached. That would be novel."

Jackie Goodman could barely contain her excitement when talking about the changeover. "When I see [other councilmembers] in passing, I can run things by them. It'll be done with much less intensity," she said. Most of that intensity seems to have been streaming off of Mitchell, but all the remaining members confirmed that the division of council was a group effort. "The whole block was like that. Eric was worse than anybody ever, but the whole underlying thing is developer-versus-citizens group or sprawl-versus- managed growth," opines Slusher.

However, even the loser's circle was in good spirits, as Eric Mitchell's aide, Donnetta McCall, made plain. "My boss and I are no good at chit-chatty, pretending-we're-all-friends talk, but we are making an effort today," she said, accepting a distinguished service award from Mitchell, who rushed off the dias after the meeting to avoid press. Soon-to-be-ex-Mayor Todd, departing for the cush life of consulting, had room to be generous to the new council. He suggested that without a strong mayor form of government, which allows the mayor to veto council, Austin is better off with Kirk Watson as mayor than departing Councilmember Reynolds. "Watson will have an easier time, given the complexities of city council, than someone who was not elected on the same slate," says Todd, adding that the rumored council unity may be only temporary. "In theory it will be unified philosophically, but oftentimes a council takes some time to find its pecking order," suggests Todd.

Todd is more than likely right in one respect: Just because the new council agrees on basic precepts does not mean decision-making will be a breeze. In fact, the council is facing a daunting array of challenges, from healing the political rifts left in the wake of the campaign, to tackling the new city budget, to say nothing of heading off the predicted conservative backlash in the 1999 elections. "I think [a backlash] will not happen because I expect the city to see balance and to see good public policy," says Beverly Griffith, armed with a list of "social fabric" priorities for the new council. Other councilmembers concur, adding that despite their Green Council tag, environmental initiatives will be merely one among many of their efforts.

Dr. Bill Spelman, for instance, plans to tackle his area of academic expertise: public safety. But rather than come up with a "big program," Spelman says the changes he plans to make will be more "cultural," explaining that "The most important innovation is actually really quiet." The most effective changes in public safety, according to Spelman, will be made by understanding the different needs of different neighborhoods throughout the city. "Police officers will take neighborhood differences very seriously, and deliver different kinds of police work."

In fact, this neighborhood-centric approach is likely to seep into just about every action of the new council.

Goodman says that "the whole planning thing and neighborhood destiny kinds of things" will be her priorities, in concert with the rest of council, which now includes three former neighborhood presidents -- Griffith, Watson, and Willie Lewis.

Slusher echoes the neighborhoods canon, suggesting that a smaller scale focus will be a key to addressing East Austin's problems. "We'll deal with areas left behind by the boom and see some economic development that's on a more neighborhood scale," says Slusher, contrasting his intentions with those of Mitchell's pet Austin Revitalization Authority, which has been charged with the redevelopment of East 11th and 12th Streets (see "ARA," p.18). When asked what the fate might be for the rest of Mitchell's projects, such as the Central City Entertainment Center, both Garcia and Slusher deferred talk about the Eastside to new Place 6 Councilmember Willie Lewis. Lewis confirms that Eastside redevelopment will be his top priority, adding that he plans to immediately try to bring the ARA into a more public forum. "I don't plan to stop anything. It's just the fact that people need to know what's going on."

While mending fences with minority communities would appear to be a priority for a predominantly white, environmentally preoccupied council, Slusher notes that the divisive voices who backed Mitchell during the campaign season should not be overemphasized. He bids them good riddance. "They are not a loss in the coalition," he says, stressing that the environmental community has a long-standing partnership with minority communities.

As the lone minority holdover on the council, Garcia says that he would have liked to have had some Hispanic company on the dais this time around. To push for that inclusion, Garcia says he will promote single-member districts in time for the next city council elections in 1999. "My hope is that we have had the last at-large election," he says. Unlike Mitchell, though, Garcia does not frame racial harmony as mutually exclusive from environmental concerns, and stresses, along with the rest of the council, the importance of clean air and water.

Look for the merry-making of the Salamander Seven to end once budget time rolls around, though. It is one thing to agree in principle, and another to agree on paper -- and the council is already bracing for a honeymoon-ending fight. Goodman predicts, though, that the discussion will be, at least, respectful: "We'll be much more comfortable with each other and we'll acknowledge each other's areas of expertise. That sounds like heaven to me."

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